Thailand: the 'Land of Smiles'

Thousands of motorbikes fill Bangkok's crowded, hyperkinetic streets

Posted: Thursday, March 04, 2004

They call Thailand the "Land of Smiles" and as we wandered the streets of Bangkok in search of a place to stay well past midnight, we soon found a reason to be thankful for the country's inherent friendliness. After walking through Khao San - the infamous backpacker's section of town popularized by Alex Garland's novel "The Beach" - we decided it would be best to find a guesthouse well away from the Grateful Dead parking lot atmosphere of that area, with its lights, 24-hour techno music, and tables of tacky items for sale. When we found ourselves stuck on a corner a few blocks away, two street vendors who had finished for the evening passed by and kindly pointed us in the direction of a guesthouse down a quieter street.

Bangkok is perhaps the most hyperactive city I've ever visited. A charge of electricity fills the muggy mixture that passes for air, clogged by the thousands of motorbikes that fill the streets. Traffic has been a major problem in the Bangkok metropolitan area for decades, and though solutions have been debated, it has now reached critical status. New roads only exacerbate the problem, as they encourage vehicle sales: Bangkok's new vehicle registrations approach nearly 1,000 a day. Calling the traffic situation in Bangkok a "nightmare" may be an exaggeration, even if rush hour traffic does slow down to a sluggish 1 to 2 mph. In any case, we thought it would be best to explore the city on foot.

Luckily, the Grand Palace was just a 20-minute walk from our guesthouse. The Palace is the home of Thailand's much beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX (who is protected from any criticism by Thailand's Constitution). We visited the Grand Palace a week before celebrations for the King's 76th birthday, and the refurbishing of the Palace in preparation for the celebrations was in full swing. Fortunately, the Palace was still open and we were able to explore the grounds.

We marveled at the immaculate temples, including the Mondop, a gold-plated repository housing sacred Buddhist scriptures inscribed on palm leaves, and the Emerald Buddha, a magnificent statue of the Buddha that is one of Thailand's most venerated religious sites. As we sat under the Buddha sitting high upon his Thai-style throne, streams of Buddhist pilgrims entered the crowded Royal Monastery to offer respect to the Lord Buddha's teachings.

Although situated in the heart of third-world Southeast Asia, Thailand has many first-world sensibilities, including air-conditioned ice cream parlors, hairdressers, and shopping malls. This became clear when we visited a restaurant for a late-afternoon bite and they offered us Western-style interpretations of chicken fried rice and beef ribs. As we dined we watched a hazy sunset over the Chao Phraya River, and the boat taxis funneling tourists just leaving the Palace.

Exploring Bangkok's traffic-snarled streets and dodging flocks of motorbikes in the market area soon became very wearying. Luckily, there are many massage parlors available to sooth any aches and pains a traveler might have. Of course, it is very important to make sure you go to the correct massage parlor. If it is a massage or similar type of physical therapy you are looking for, be sure you go to the legitimate massage parlors frequented by women. The other parlors most commonly frequented by men are parlors in name only, and massage may not be the type of physical therapy being offered. And if it is massage, it is definitely not the traditional method of massage one might be used to here in the States. As I simply wanted a foot massage, we headed to a legitimate parlor where I was able to get relief for my aching feet.

The reason to differentiate the massage parlors in Bangkok is due to Thailand's notorious sex trade. Prostitution is a $4.3 billion industry in Thailand, and it is estimated that 300,000 women and children are involved in the sex trade throughout Southeast Asia, including the zoos of Patpong Road and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok's red-light district. Many are brought to Thailand as children from neighboring Burma, and are working off a contract purchased by dealers from their families. Popular "sex tours" are advertised to Asian, Australian, and American businessmen, highlighting the most popular "soapy" massage parlors. Due to the 1997 Asian economic crisis, it is the only option many of these women have available to make a living. Yet, all of it is illegal.

During my abbreviated trip to Thailand, Justice Minister Pongthop Thepkanchana announced that the Thai government should consider legalization of prostitution, initiating much debate. Some feel it is a progressive step in the right direction. Others feel the problem will disappear if the government gives it no attention. Some Thai prostitutes decry the legalization of prostitution, arguing that legalization would require registration, stigmatizing them further. The Thai government has taken a pragmatic approach with the industry before: in the 1990s it tried to decrease the HIV rate by making all brothels use condoms. Whatever decision the government makes, steps need to be taken to end the cycle of child sex slavery in Thailand. Perhaps proactive steps can be taken similar to the ones taken in Cambodia, where a high-profile advertising campaign warns against the sexual abuse of children, and tourists are encouraged to report any suspicious behavior.

Though my stay there was short, Bangkok was a good bridge from the ultramodern techno-culture of Japan to the more agricultural-based rural society of Cambodia. It was my first experience outside of a comfortable, first-world setting, and I will never forget the sights, sounds, and smells. A bustling capital of a thriving country, I consider Bangkok to be the heart of Southeast Asia and hope to, one day, be able to explore this metropolis in more depth.



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